Tuesday, Feb. 7

West Virginia mine accidents spur new Illinois mine safety legislation   Send a link to a friend

[FEB. 7, 2006]  SPRINGFIELD -- In the wake of tragic West Virginia mine accidents that killed 14 miners in January, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich proposed legislation Monday that would require additional safety precautions to protect Illinois miners. The new proposals include measures that would aid both rescuers and miners in escaping if an accident occurred.

"Coal mining is re-emerging here in Illinois," Blagojevich said. "As we bring more mines back to life, we have to make sure that the men and women who go underground every day are safe and secure."

2004 and 2005 were fatality-free in Illinois' coal and aggregate mines, marking the first time in state history that Illinois has gone two consecutive years without a fatality. The current statistical year, ending in April, also has been fatality-free.

"We've been fortunate that we haven't had a serious mining incident in Illinois," said Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Sparta. "But given the tragic circumstances of the West Virginia accidents, it's time to update our laws."

"It is imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure the safety of Illinois miners," said Sen. Deanna Demuzio, D-Carlinville. "This legislation provides common-sense actions such as requiring lifelines in our mines to make sure that miners can find their way to the surface even if their vision is impaired from an accident. We should do all that we can to ensure that all of Illinois' miners return home to their families each night."

"In light of the tragedies that have hit coal mining families in West Virginia and Kentucky, we need to double our efforts to protect those who make their living going underground to mine coal," said Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton. "Updating mine rescue stations, like the ones in Benton and Harrisburg, using transponders to locate trapped miners and ensuring there are extra supplies of oxygen available in case of an emergency will give our miners a better chance at surviving an accident. These efforts will go a long way in making sure they leave their job safe and secure at the end of the day."

The new legislation includes the following provisions:

  • Self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs: SCSRs are designed to supply an individual with one hour of oxygen for use in an emergency situation and are currently required by federal regulation to be available to miners. While SCSRs can provide some protection, more than an hour of travel would be required to reach the surface of many of Illinois' mines. Therefore, the governor is proposing not only that every miner be required to wear an SCSR while underground, but also that caches of SCSRs be placed throughout the mine for use during a longer escape.

  • Emergency communication and tracking system: The new legislation would require the installation of a wireless communication device capable of receiving emergency communications from the surface to any location throughout a mine. Mine operators would be required to install in or around the mine any and all equipment necessary to transmit emergency communications. In addition, the governor is proposing a tracking system to provide real-time monitoring of the physical location of each person underground. Operators would be required to install the wireless tracking equipment necessary for such monitoring and to provide every miner with a tracking device to be worn while underground.

  • Mine rescue stations: Illinois currently operates mine rescue stations in Springfield, Benton, Harrisburg and Sparta. However, only two of those stations are certified by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Additionally, the state has agreements with all the underground mines to provide personnel to staff the stations, but there are no stipulations on how many people each company must provide. The new legislation would mandate reasonable participation in mine rescue teams by coal companies, as well as require certification of all mine rescue stations.

  • Lifelines and tag lines: State law already requires that each mine have two different ways of exiting a mine in the event of an emergency, each marked with reflectors. However, these reflectors can be impossible to locate in the event of a fire. To ensure that all miners can escape quickly, this provision would require lifelines along the escape routes. The lifelines would be required to have cones indicating the direction to the surface. Miners would be able to hold the lifeline and find their way to the surface, avoiding any disorientation due to impaired visibility. It would also require tag lines, which miners, in the event of an emergency, would be required to use. The tag lines would connect a group of miners together, preventing individual miners from becoming lost.

  • Return entry to aid in egress: In addition to the two escape routes mandated by state law, every mine has a third passageway that is used as a return. The new legislation would require that the return entry be marked with reflectors or other signage to give a clear indication of an alternative path to the surface in the event the mandated escape routes are blocked.

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  • Transportation of workers: While mine operators must maintain a vehicle suitable to transport sick or injured workers, transportation is not mandated in any other circumstance. Therefore, an entire unit or group of miners could be left without mechanical transportation for a distance of many miles underground. In most instances, this distance would far exceed a miner's ability to walk out of a mine while using an SCSR. In order to remedy this situation, the governor's proposal mandates that mechanical transportation be available on each working section of a mine and that this transportation be of adequate size to transport to the surface all miners working in the section.

  • Certifying independent contractors: Illinois mining operations routinely use contractors for specialized projects or to assist the regular work force. Unlike the mining work force, contractors are not certified by the state and may not have received adequate training. This legislation would require anyone working in or around Illinois mines to complete health and safety training on an annual basis with an approved state of Illinois mine instructor.

  • General surface supervisor: The new legislation would amend the Coal Mining Act to require that individuals who supervise underground mine surface facilities, coal preparation plants and independent contractors engaged in the construction, demolition or dismantling of facilities obtain competency certification from the Office of Mines and Minerals.

  • Methane extraction: In order to ensure the safety of miners, the legislation would prohibit methane extraction from sealed areas of active mines, as well as from abandoned mines that are attached to active workings.

"This legislation would ensure that Illinois continues to be a leader in mines safety," said Joe Angleton, director of the Office of Mines and Minerals. "By introducing this bill, Governor Blagojevich, Representative Reitz, and Senators Forby and Demuzio have demonstrated Illinois' commitment to its coal miners and the important job they do."

Illinois coal miner safety is the No. 1 priority of the state Office of Mines and Minerals. State law requires that a mine be inspected once a month; however, state mine inspectors often visit mining operations with more frequency to ensure compliance. Routine inspections of coal mines include checking for proper ventilation and hazardous conditions underground and on the surface of a mine, ensuring roof and rib control procedures are being followed, and making sure miners are working safely and properly.

Three new mines are expected to come on line in Illinois in 2006 -- further evidence that the coal industry is making a comeback in Illinois. The industry began to decline in the 1990s, after tougher federal sulfur emission standards were put in place. Since then, advances in clean-coal technology have made it possible to burn Illinois coal and still meet the strictest air-quality standards in the nation.

Illinois now has the most aggressive package of incentives in the nation to spur clean-coal-fueled power plant development and provide other support for the Illinois coal industry. In July 2003, Blagojevich signed a law that added $300 million in revenue bonds to the Coal Revival Program, which provides major tax and financing incentives to large clean-coal-fueled projects.

Since 2003, the state has invested $64.7 million in coal development projects, including the Peabody Energy Electric Prairie State project in Washington County and the Taylorville Energy Center, a coal gasification project in Christian County. Also included is more than $45 million in grants to Illinois coal operators who upgrade their facilities to make their product more competitive, as well as more than $11 million for advanced research through the Illinois Clean Coal Institute.

Blagojevich also has led an effort with the Illinois congressional delegation to tout Illinois' advantages as a site for the U.S. Department of Energy's proposed FutureGen project, which will demonstrate making electric power and hydrogen fuel from coal with near-zero harmful emissions. The project site is expected to be chosen within the next year.

In the 1980s, Illinois employed over 18,000 coal miners, producing more than 60 million tons of coal per year. Today, despite a 77 percent reduction in work force, Illinois coal companies still produce 32 million tons of coal annually, with production up nearly 10 percent in the past two years.

Over 50 percent of all electricity used in the United States comes from coal, and Illinois' supply is among the most abundant in the world. "At our current production level, which is more on a tons-per-man basis than ever, we have enough coal in Illinois to meet the energy needs of the entire nation for the next 200 years," Angleton said.

In terms of energy value, Illinois coal has more BTUs, or British thermal units, than the oil supplies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined.

[News release from the governor's office]

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